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Scilla natalensis

Merwilla plumbea (Scilla natalensis) is a graceful perennial bulb, and with its tall plumes of blue flowers, the showiest of the South African scillas. It is deciduous, growing during summer and dormant in the winter. It can grow up to 1 m tall, often in large colonies on cliffs and rocky slopes. Widespread in eastern summer rainfall areas. 

The Flower

A rosette of 6 to 9 broad, tapering leaves emerges from the top of the bulb in spring. The leaves are attractive in their own right, with clearly distinct veins which give them a two-tone effect, particularly when back-lit. Their colour is light green with white-grey overtones, they can be entirely green, or they can have purplish colouring on the margins, at the base or at the apex of the leaf, or the underside can be partially or entirely shaded with purple. They can be completely hairless, or one or both sides can be covered in short hairs. The leaves of a well-grown plant can reach a height of 30 to 50 cm with about equal spread.

Traditional medicine

The ash from a burnt plant, and the bulb in powdered form, is rubbed into cuts and scratches, and over sprains and fractures. Decoctions are taken as enemas for female infertility and to enhance male potency and libido. It is also known to be used as a purgative, a laxative and for internal tumours, and is used in conjunction with other ingredients in infusions taken during pregnancy to facilitate delivery and in treatments for chest pain and kidney troubles. It is also an ingredient in a medicinal preparation for cattle suffering from lung sickness. It has magical properties for the Tswana who rub the powdered bulb into the back, joints and other body parts to increase their strength and resistance to witchcraft. The plant appears to have significant analgesic and antimicrobial activity, and phytochemical studies have found that it contains compounds known to possess anti-inflammatory and anti-mutagenic properties which would support its use for the treatment of strains, sprains and cancers.


Merwilla plumbea has shown itself to be selectively toxic to mammals. It is said to be poisonous to stock, particularly when the young leaves appear in spring. Experiments on sheep, using fresh bulb as a drench, proved fatal to the sheep, yet it has been proven an ineffective rat poison. It is apparently toxic to man when raw, even the sap is reported to burn the skin, and for any preparations taken internally the plant must first be heated. This plant should be treated with extreme caution, as taking any part of it internally is potentially fatal. 

What is in a name?

Merwilla plumbea is the name given to a combination of several speciesnamely S. kraussii, S. natalensis and S. plumbea. This description pertains primarily to the form previously known as Scilla natalensis. This genus has been named after F van der Merwe, a botanist who worked on this family. The species name refers to the lead blue colour of the flowers. 

The Afrikaans name blouberglelie, which means blue mountain lily, is also applied to other South African species of Scilla and is a name that has been in use for hundreds of years. It earned the name blouslangkop, which means blue snake’s head, presumably because the emerging flower stalk resembles a snake, and the tips of the flower stalks are often coloured bluish-purple. The Zulu name inguduza means “searching the body for the cause of the ailment”, indicating its use in KwaZulu-Natal as a diagnostic tool.

Source: SANBI

Photos: Joan Keyter


What in the world?

What in the world?

Hyobanche rubra

Known in English as Broomrape, in Afrikaans as “Aardroos” and in Sesotho as “Moshoafeela”, this unusual plant belongs to the snapdragon family.

It has an underground stem and is a parasite, living off the roots of another plant. The portion above ground is the inflorescence with dark pink to red flowers.

The name Hyobanche means “to strangle” and the Sotho name is equally perceptive and may mean “the naked one which kills”, alluding to its ability as a parasite to kill its host plant.

A similar species in the Western Cape is known as “Katnaels”and “Skilpadkos”.

How Yellow!

How Yellow!

This delightful bulb (actually a corm), known as Yellow Tritonia, with its very striking yellow flowers belongs to the Iris family and is fairly common in the Nature Reserve. It is normally solitary and is currently in flower on the Scilla walk.

It is also called, Bergkatjietee, and Khahlaenyenyane which is Sotho for the small Khahla or Gladiolus.

The Basotho use parts of it to treat stomach complaints and heal infections in the navel of a newborn child.

Photos: Joan Keyter

A pink walk indeed

Hesperantha schelpeana.

One of the early Spring jewels in the CVC is this stunning Hesperantha schelpeana.


Currently in flower along the Mallen Walk, it, together with Hesperantha baurii are two plants endemic (only found here) to the Drakensberg and surrounds. The latter species is taller, with larger flowers and is usually found in wet places.

The name Hesperantha comes from the Greek Hesper – evening and anthos- flower. Other members of this group flower in the evenings. Our two species are named after Prof Ted Schelpe, a botanist and Rev. L. Baur an early missionary.

Hesperantha are bulbs with corms like Gladiolus and the sword-like leaves often appear after the flowers. The CVC population also has a rare white-flowered form.

Reference: Pooley’s Mountain Flowers, page 186. The image of H. schelpeana in that book differs slightly from those in the CVC.

Photos: Joan Keyter

The Iris Family

The Iris Family

Image: Joan Keyter

Rodney Moffett (Research associate, Dept. of Plant Sciences, UFS) contributing with a series of articles regarding the more interesting plants in the Clarens Village Conservancy.


Members of the Iridaceae are a group characterized by long strap-like leaves and flower parts in 3’s or 6’s, and having only 3 stamens. The most well-known are the bearded irises found in many gardens. These are, however, not indigenous, having originally come from the northern hemisphere. 

Indigenous members of this family occurring in and around the Conservancy are genera such as Moraea, Gladiolus, Watsonia, Hesperantha, Schizostylis, Dierama, Crocosmia, Tritonia and Aristea. 


(named after the wife of the Swedish botanist, Linnaeus).
Closest to the garden Iris, two Moraea’s occur here, viz: Moraea tripetala, dwarf and mauve and M. alticola, found in higher parts.

Moraea alticola

Image by Wim Wybenga


(Latin name for a sword, referring to the leaf blades).
Four species locally, viz: Gladiolus dalenii, G.crassifolium, G. papilio and G. saundersii  (the latter rare, one plant seen so far).

Gladiolus dalenii.

Image: Anneke Kritzinger

Gladiolus crassifolius  

Image: Wim Wybenga

Gladiolus papilio

Image: Anneke Kritzinger

Gladiolus saundersii 

Image: Rod Moffett

Watsonia lepida 

(after William Watson, 18th century English scientist).
Only one species here, Watsonia lepida. Often in large populations.

Watsonia lepida  

Image: Anneke Kritzinger

Schizostylis coccinea

(Schizo, Gk for split; stylis, Latin, referring to style). 
One species here. Schizostylis coccinea. River lily. Found in wet places.

Schizostylis coccinea 

Image: Wim Wybenga


(Hesperos, Gk for evening; anthos Latin for flower).
Two species in the CVC., viz: Hesperantha coccinea (formerly included in Schizostylis) found In wet places and H. schelpeana. Latter rare.

Hesperantha coccinea 

Image: Anneke Kritzinger

 Hesperantha schelpeana 

Image: Rod Moffett


(Diorama, Gk for funnel, referring to shape of flower).
One species locally. Dierama robustum. Common name, Hairbells.

Dierama robustum  

Image: Anneke Kritzinger


(Krokos, Gk for saffron; osme, Gk for smell).
One species in the CVC, Crocosmia paniculata. Gardeners also know it as Montbretia.

Crocosmia paniculata  

Image: SANBI


(Triton, Latin for weathercock, referring to the stamens).
One species in the CVC. Tritonia lineata.

Tritonia lineata 

Image: Wim Wybenga


(Arista, Latin for point, referring to the sharp pointed leaves).
One species in the CVC, Aristea woodii. Blue flowers rare in this family.

Aristea woodii  

Image: Wim Wybenga

Gladiolus saundersii, Welcome

Gladiolus saundersii, Welcome

Saunders’ Gladiolus, also known as the Lesotho Lily, is not often seen in our immediate area, on the contrary! Rodney Moffat, an honorary research fellow of the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State, now living in Clarens, says he often sees this lily in the Drakensberg but cannot recall when he last spotted it in Clarens.

This elegant lady stands 400-600mm tall, usually grows in colonies in fairly dry rocky places between 2400-3000m. The leaves are sturdy, erect and grow into a fan to 15-25mm wide with the midrib thickened, showing prominent veins. The flowers are large, more or less 60mm wide, usually downward facing and strongly hooded. It is bright red with a broad white mark and speckling on three lower tepals.

The flowers can be eaten as salad or cooked as a pot herb. It is often used in traditional medicine to treat diarrhoea.

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